The squat is one of the best exercises for athletes and the general population. Everyone should be doing some form of squats because they work the whole body, and studies show squatting to increase lower body strength can produce the following benefits:
• Better functional mobility and faster walking speed
• Greater bone mineral density and less chance of breaking a bone
• Stronger core musculature to prevent lower back pain and injury
• Faster running speed at short and long distances
• Greater vertical jump height
• Better sports performance on the court or field
The squat is such a great exercise that we'd like to wax lyrical about them but since you probably don’t come to the Poliquin Group site to read poetry, we’ll use this space to give you six excellent reasons you should do squats.
1) Do Squats to Run Faster
Running speed is influenced by being able to apply more force into the ground, and the fastest way to improve this is to increase lower body strength.
Not only will heavy load front and back squats train the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves to produce more ground reaction force, but they will increase strength in the entire core musculature. This will allow athletes to integrate their increased speed into sports-specific movements on the field or court.
Recent studies prove that squats increase speed. For example, a study performed on elite rugby players showed that an increase in maximal squat strength during an 8-week pre-season training program made the players significantly faster at short sprints. The players performed two microcycles that included a 4-week maximal lower body strength program followed by a power program of the same length.
For the strength program, players did back squats, clean pulls, deadlifts, and Nordic curls, all at 85 to 90 percent of the 1RM. For the power program they did hang cleans, squat jumps, back squats, and Nordic curls, all at 85 percent of the 1RM.
Results showed that the players increased their maximal squat by 30 kg, improving from 170 to 200 kg. These impressive strength gains translated to improvements in sprint speed of 6 to 7.6 percent over 5, 10, and 20 meters. The players were able to apply more ground reaction force during the initial acceleration phase of sprinting.
Take away: Include heavy front and back squats in a lower body training program to increase speed for short sprint sports such as basketball, soccer, rugby, field hockey, football, and lacrosse.
Sprinters and longer distance runners will benefit as well—highly trained runners will increase speed not by moving their arms and legs faster, but by applying more force into the ground with every step.
2) Do Squats for Better Mobility and Less Pain
The general population will benefit from better mobility and less chance of lower back or knee pain by doing squats. A recent study performed on elderly people with osteoarthritis showed that squat training resulted in less self-reported pain in the knees, better balance, and faster walking speed. Participants also had less evidence of chronic inflammation that is associated with arthritis.
Take away: A stronger lower body and core musculature will allow all populations to move better and experience less pain or chance of injury. Squats are one solution for better overall health!
3) Do Deep Squats to Increase Vertical Jump
Full-range of motion squats in which you go all the way down past parallel so that the hamstring covers the upper calf also increase vertical jumping ability and will enhance athletic performance.
A German study shows that a 10-week full squat program increased vertical jump more than quarter squats performed with a heavier load. Researchers compared deep back squats, deep front squats, and quarter-range back squats on vertical and squat jump height. The quarter-squat group did not increase vertical jump height at all and only increased squat jump height by 2.6 percent.
The group that performed deep back squat training increased squat jump height by 5.8 percent, and the deep front squat group improved by 7.2 percent. Vertical jump gains for the deep front and back squat groups were around 8 percent.
This study is important because it refutes a common argument in strength and conditioning that partial-range training will provide superior angle-specific strength and power gains for athletes who normally perform movements through a partial-range of motion when competing.
Rather than being superior, strict partial-range training is ineffective. Full-range motions guarantee performance enhancing effects for athletes, whether they are volleyball players, long jumpers, ski jumpers, or play a court or field sport.
Take away: If you want to perform better, get stronger, jump higher, and have a better body composition, make a commitment to do full-range deep squats.
This doesn’t mean partial-range training isn’t appropriate at times—it can be used to challenge the strength curve for advanced athletes, but it can’t be the sole training stimulus if you want to jump higher or run faster.
4) Do Front Squats to Train for Sports
The front squat is one of your best tools for achieving new levels of athleticism, flexibility, and dynamic mobility. It trains you to produce high levels of force that translates to sports such as bobsledding, alpine skiing, speed skating, and rugby. Mastery of the front squat also helps you train vertical acceleration for Olympic lifts and sports that require jumping like basketball and volleyball.
A couple of new studies show how to get the best performance results from the front squat. First, the front squat requires you to have superior flexibility in the hip, ankle, shoulder, and wrist. If you don’t have the flexibility to perform the front squat, you will never reach your lower body strength potential.
Second, the front squat keeps you technically honest because if you cheat by shooting the hips back during the upward motion, you may drop the bar. The front squat also places less compressive force on the knee than the back squat, while still providing a comparable training stimulus to the muscles.
Third, electromyographic readings show that the front squat works the quadriceps, rectus abdominis, and erector spinae better than the back squat.
This makes it an excellent exercise for the quads and trunk that applies to sprint speed and jumping ability for athletes because it allows you to train the body to transfer force through the kinetic chain, as seen in the German study mentioned in #3.
Take away: Get faster and jump higher with proper front squat form. Including front squats in your program provides an incentive for training flexibility, and for novice trainees, it can feel more comfortable than having a heavy bar on the back. It also activates the trunk musculature when heavy loads are used.
5) Do Squats For Better, Stronger Abs
Squats are a great exercise for your abdominal muscles and greater core strength means better sports performance.
A recent study of Division 1 college football players showed that maximal lower body strength and power as measured by the 1RM back squat was associated most directly with strength in the core muscles (rectus abdominis, pelvic and hip girdle, obliques, and paraspinals).
Researchers in this study point to the uselessness of the plank exercise to train the core for athletes and the general population. The plank (and side plank) is performed in a non-functional static position that is rarely replicated in sports or in daily life, making it useless as a primary component of training.
Take away: Do squats for stronger, better looking abs that will allow you to perform better. For additional ab training, deadlifts are essential, and chin-ups are ideal for abdominal endurance because you must stabilize the body throughout the motion if you do them properly.
Push-ups provide adequate static horizontal abdominal training, and glute-ham raises can help strengthen the posterior chain if you have imbalances in the lower back, or hamstrings.
6) Start Doing Squats at a Young Age For Better Health and Performance—Squats are Safe for Everyone!
Squats are an excellent exercise for ALL ages and research shows that you should begin doing them at a young age for better performance and injury prevention.
Squats won’t hurt your knees or your back if performed correctly. And starting early will allow youth to engage in heavy training sooner because they will accumulate “training years” at a younger age.
A 2-year study looked at the effect of strength training in a youth population. The study included elite young soccer players and weightlifters who ranged in age from 11 to 19.
Strength gains in the squat were analyzed based on two-year age groups: Group A was under 19 years old, group B was under 17, group C was under 15, and group D was 11 to 13 years old.
The soccer players followed a typical periodized training program that included squats and other multi-joint free weight exercises for the whole body. Group D, the youngest group, performed technique-oriented training that included all the same exercises as the older trainees but with a strict focus on form.
Results showed that strength values of the 1RM for the parallel front and back squat relative to body weight were as follows (front squat is listed first):
Group A: 1.5, 1.7
Group B: 1.4, 1.6
Group C: 1.2, 1.4
Group D: 0.7, 0.9
Final 1RMs for the strength trainees group ranged from 40 to 50 percent higher than a control group of soccer players in the back squat, indicating the impressive benefit of training.
That young athletes are highly trainable is no surprise, but the “trainability of youth” continues to suffer from strange myths and misconceptions that discourage parents and sports coaches from having their young athletes strength train.
Despite abundant research that far fewer injuries happen in the weight room than on the playing field, and that strength training—and especially squatting—for youth improves bone mineral density and growth rather than stunting it, many young athletes are missing out on reaching their potential because they don’t lift weights.
Take away: Everyone should squat and researchers suggest young athletes can begin training at 7 to 8 years of age so that in the best-case scenario they may have up to more than 10 years of lifting experience by the time they are 19 years old. Naturally, training needs to be fun, but with strict attention to technique.